“Whoa, Lady!” Eric pulled on the reins, but the big Irish Draught was obviously more focused on following the hunt thundering across the fields ahead of them than paying attention to her rider. He leaned back slowly, doing his best not to actually hurt the stubborn mare, but determined to get her back under his control. “Stop, dammit! What’s wrong with you, girl?”
It was hard to blame her, really. After all, he was actually the one not following proper protocol. As a guest and relative novice, he should be right where Lady Gray was trying to keep him – trailing the more experienced riders, but still ahead of the watchers. The dapple-gray horse had probably been on a hundred such hunts and knew that horses followed the dogs, which followed the fox - except that the dogs were not following the fox.
His extra pressure finally convinced Lady Gray to stop, though she pranced in obvious agitation as the rest of the stragglers galloped past on either side. Leaning forward, Eric patted her neck reassuringly, ignoring the frowns and puzzled looks from passing riders. “It’s OK, girl. We’re going off on our own, OK?” From the way the mare laid her ears back, it seemed that his change of plans was most definitely not OK. However, she obeyed his knees and tugs on the reins this time, turning back towards a break in the thick woods he’d seen the fox bolt into. He was already starting to doubt his own eyes, though. How could all those dogs and people miss seeing something that Eric had spotted all the way from the back?
This was probably really silly, but his heart wasn’t in the hunt anyway. A pack of hounds and a bunch of people on horseback chasing a poor animal all over the Irish countryside didn’t seem much like sport to him. When he’d accepted the invitation to ride with this group, he’d assumed this was a ‘drag’ type hunt, where the hounds followed a pre-scented trail. He hadn’t seen the caged fox until it was too late to back out graciously, and he didn’t want to cause any embarrassment for the woman who had invited him.
So why had he broken off to chase the beast on his own? Eric had to chuckle at his own stubbornness. He had started out to follow the fox, and that’s exactly what he was going to do. No baying dogs, however, and no thundering herds – just he and Lady Gray ambling over the Irish landscape, enjoying the beautiful scenery. Actually, there wasn't a prayer of catching up to the beast – all he really wanted was a glimpse of it so he could prove to himself that he was right.
The big mare slowed as they approached the edge of the woods, snorting and shaking her head. Was something hiding inside? It seemed unlikely that the huge rolling grounds of this estate harbored anything dangerous. Lady Gray didn’t seem frightened – her ears were perked up and the rumbles in her throat sounded almost playful.
Eric caught a flash of movement in the corner of one eye, and twisted his head around in time to catch a glimpse of red fur before the fox vanished into the brush. What the Devil? He rubbed at his eyes automatically, bewildered by the size of the beast. While he had only seen it for a split-second, the animal looked the size of a big Labrador – certainly not the scrawny little fox that had shot out of the cage. He flushed slightly, realizing that he’d definitely goofed up here, but the new quarry was far more interesting. Besides, the hunt had already disappeared from view, probably figuring that he’d given up and headed back to the manor house.
He urged the horse to follow, but she refused again. Being scared was one thing, but he was convinced she was just being stubborn. Annoyed, he dug his heels into her barrel. “Come on, girl! What is wrong with you?” When that failed to move her, he flicked his riding crop’s tip against her rump. She jumped, more startled than actually stung by the whip, and twisted her head back to give him a look that seemed to say ‘How DARE you?’ However, the light tap seemed to end any resistance on her part, and she began trotting into the woods with apparent enthusiasm.
Then Eric forgot the horse’s odd behavior as the fox popped up again, this time in plain view. God, it was huge! The animal yipped and took off, and Lady Gray bolted after it without waiting for a prompt from her rider. Bewildered by the sudden change of heart, Eric held on for dear life as the big mare charged through the trees. Somehow, the fox remained ahead of them, popping up every hundred feet or so for a quick look and that odd bark. He felt a strange prickling on the back of his neck – this was not right. Unfortunately, Lady Gray was locked into the chase again, and refused to respond when he tried to stop her. At least, until she came to an abrupt stop that sent him flying over her head to tumble painfully into a small clearing.
He was stunned for a few moments, but had enough experience with equine ejector seats to simply take a quick mental tally of pain, decide nothing was broken, and then sit up and calmly say "Ouch." Lady Gray whuffled at him from the edge of the clearing, somehow managing to look amused. Eric couldn't help feeling a bit betrayed, considering the special grooming he'd given this borrowed horse, even remembering to bring some carrots as a form of edible greeting card. Yeah, but what had he done for her lately?
That weird prickly sensation started up again, and he twisted his head to see the oversized fox standing just a few yards behind him. Then his eyes widened as he realized that the animal was literally standing behind him – on two legs, with furry arms crossed over its chest. Rather obviously a 'he,' the creature was easily the size of a ten year-old child.
Eric's first impression was that it might really be a kid in a realistic costume, maybe from one of the fanatical Animal Rights groups that kept trying to break up foxhunts. That would explain the size and bipedal stance, but no human legs of any age would fit in the impossibly thin hind legs. Not to mention how someone in a costume might be moving three bushy tails independently of each other. Three tails? OK, there was one possibility that would account for everything he was seeing. That is, besides the most obvious conclusion that he was hallucinating.
A Kitsune. Vulpine shape changers from Japanese mythology supposedly endowed with magical powers that grew in direct proportion to the number of tails they had. Three tails was probably not high up on the ladder, but the weird creature probably had plenty of magic to do Eric harm. He swallowed nervously, not quite sure how to address a mythical hallucination. "Um, hello?"
The creature raised an eyebrow, and his face twisted into what might be a smile. A smile full of small, sharp teeth. "So, another brave hunter tracks down his quarry."
Eric wasn't all that surprised that this hallucination could speak, though it did seem strange that the Kitsune's voice sounded like that of a wizened old woman. However, there was a sharpness to the tone and a cold glint in the eyes that created a cold, hard lump in his gut. Following this fox suddenly seemed like a very, very bad idea.
While he was still struggling to come up with something to say, the Kitsune's eyes narrowed. "You caught me, human. Now what? Did you plan to make a coat collar of me? Or just stuff what the dogs left of my body and put it on a bookshelf to gather dust?" Then he managed a look of obvious disgust. "Oh, that's right! You were just there to watch!"
"No! I mean, I didn't know this was a fox hunt!" Eric paled, seeing a glare of rage. "Not a REAL fox hunt! I thought this was a drag, where the dogs just follow a marked trail!"
"Oh, and when you saw me in the cage, and then get chased by those dogs, I guess you figured I was just some sort of radio-controlled stuffed animal?" The Kitsune advanced a step, his fur starting to bristle as if charged with static electricity. "Take a look around you, human! This is my garden. Guess what I grow here?"
Garden? Deeply afraid now, Eric rose to his knees and looked around the clearing. All he could see was natural-looking brush, grass, lots of different trees. He frowned and squinted at the twisted trunk of a small oak. Was that a belt around the middle? And a fir tree to the right had what appeared to be the tattered remains of a red jacket actually slipped over two of its main branches. Oh, Hell. What had he gotten himself into?
The Kitsune answered his own question. "Security. Comfort. Homes for the small creature of the world who are continually victimized by your kind. Each one of these trees represents one more chance for survival, and one less human to worry about. Any last thoughts before you join them?"
Eric had absolutely no doubt that the next words spoken would determine whether he would be alive or dead two minutes from now. So it came as a bit of a surprise when they came from Lady Gray.
"He's really not a bad sort, for a human at least." The mare's voice was familiar, almost a perfect match for the old actress who played on Murder She Wrote. Angela Lansbury. "Took care of me quite nicely, and even brought me carrots." A magic fox and a talking horse. It was a little hard not to think he was in a Disney movie. In fact, he really wished he WAS in a Disney movie right now.
"So why did you bring him here? You know I can't let him go." The creature scowled at the horse.
Lady gray seemed unfazed. "Silly sot wouldn't take no for an answer. Flicked me with his whip when I tried to turn away." She turned her head slightly and focused her right eye on Eric. "That was really uncalled for, you know. I was just trying to protect you."
"I'm sorry." Eric flushed slightly, feeling as if he'd taken the crop to someone's grandmother. "I was just curious."
"Curious? Stubborn and willful, if you ask me." Lady Gray was getting up a good head of steam. "Had to go chasin' off on your own, prove that you knew better than anyone else. Well, look at the sorry state you're in now. I shouldn't have bothered with you at all, but I've always had a soft spot for any human who really knows how to use a brush."
"I don't have all day for this." The Kitsune scowled, tapping one foot impatiently. "That puffed-up Lord he was following is due to meet a tragic and horrible fate in a few minutes." He glared at Eric. "OK, so I'll turn him into a pretty tree! He's a human. What does it matter? Unless you're in the market for a boy friend?"
"Heavens, no!" Lady Gray snorted and laid her ears back. "Another randy stallion, bothering us poor mares until the humans whack off his behoogies? I think not. Besides, he'd most likely break a leg trying to walk."
Eric swallowed, eyes wide. This mythical hallucination was hot to turn him into a plant. It was a safe bet that he wasn't going to get out of here on two legs, but he might be able to finagle four. "Turn me into a horse?" As terrified as he was, it was no trouble channeling fear into his voice. "You're not gonna turn me into an animal, are you?"
The Kitsune sneered at him. "Only if you're lucky. Personally, I think you'd make a nice blackberry bush. Though it might be nice to see you on the other end of one of those damned whips."
"But I didn't really hit her!" He looked over at the mare. "Please, tell him I didn't mistreat you! I'd never hurt a horse!"
"Oh, just a fox, huh?" The Kitsune's fur bristled out further, and a slight crackling sound began to fill the air. "Maybe you'd do better as a stinkweed!"
The mare snorted. "That was no love tap. And I'm going to have bruises where you ground those damned boots of yours into my ribs." She tossed her head in the air with exaggerated disdain. "You know, I think I really would like to see this one get his behoogies cut off - assuming he doesn't end up in some knacker's meat case first. Just thinking of him trying to run with the pack carrying one of those wrinkled blobs of lard on his back."
Was she trying to help him? Eric shivered, realizing he was playing with his life here, but decided to hope that the mare as going along with his Briar Patch routine." "I won't tell anyone! Nobody would believe me anyway. Just let me go, please!"
Folding his arms over his chest, the Kitsune looked at Lady Gray, and then at Eric. His brow furrowed, and then he gave them both a smug grin . "Fine. You want him, you can have him."
Eric felt a sudden throbbing, not quite painful, but definitely unpleasant. It was as if his muscles had assumed a life of their own, squirming and flowing under his skin like monstrous leeches. Then his left arm stretched out suddenly, fingers closing into a lump as dark hair flowed over his skin like paint. Clothing cut painfully into his skin as his body expanded, popping buttons and splitting seams. A dark mass was pushing out between his eyes, and his brain was being bombarded with strange sensations. Muscles he'd never had before pulled in his butt, while toes and fingers vanished forever. Then his right arm began to alter, and he glanced down for a last look.
Fear and fascination warred within his mind as he watched his wrist swell and his remaining thumb draw up into the gray-black mass of what rapidly became his right forehoof. Idle speculation on turning into a horse or donkey was quite a different experience from actually having it happen. His greater concern, however, was for his mind. While equine form was definitely preferable to life as a blackberry bush, he had no idea how much of his identity would remain when the process was over.
"There!" The Kitsune wrinkled his nose in obvious distaste. "He's your problem now." Then the creature simply poofed out of existence.
Eric was slightly stunned for a moment. That was it? While the strange pulsing and convolutions of muscle had stopped, he didn't feel that much different. He twisted his head slightly to focus one eye on his forelegs. Very long, covered in glossy black fur, with pink-gray hooves. And a few scraps of fabric from his ruined jacket. He stood up unsteadily, trying to coordinate four legs for the first time. Where was the strength and grace of being a horse? He felt weak as a kitten, and terribly clumsy. And the damned Kitsune left him barely larger than he had been as a human!
'Oh, bother!" Lady Gray twisted around and shook her rump experimentally. "I suppose I deserve this. Never play games with a Kitsune."
"What happened to you?" Eric didn't see anything wrong with the mare. In fact, she looked incredibly wonderful to him - especially the swollen teats that beckoned to him from between her hind legs. He stumbled towards her, thoughts focusing in on a growing hunger and the sensations of security and contentment that the mare suddenly exuded.
"I got stuck with you." The mare snorted grumpily as he began to nurse. "I just hope you still remember how to groom when you grow up."
He could feel his thoughts changing as he pulled on her teats, each squirt of the rich milk washing away some detail of his past. The process did not frighten him, for he did not feel diminished by the loss. Instead, he felt curiosity, a bright energy.
The mare snuffled him gently, starting to exhibit maternal feelings that went along with his own growing dependence and innocence. Her act hadn't fooled the Kitsune any more than Eric's had, and it looked like they had both been outfoxed.